A Brief History of U.S. Genealogy


A brief overview

© 2014, Alex Colvin

Genealogy, the study of family history, is often thought of as a proper sub-field of history,  but, technically, it is not.  It is, more properly a methodological approach used in Anthropology in its various sub-fields such as Archeology, Cultural Anthropology, Forensic Anthropology, etc.  An excellent demonstration of its use can be found in Stephanie DuPont Golda’s essay, “A Look at the History of Forensic Anthropology: Tracing My Academic Genealogy,” wherein Golda, a Ph.D. candidate at the  University of Missouri, traced her current Ph.D. lineage back  through the years to her field’s earlier founders. In other words, from her instructor’s to his, then to his, and so forth.[1] The point was to show how she had inherited the knowledge she possessed.

Nevertheless, as a methodology for finding ancestral ties, the  field of genealogy relies heavily upon this research approach for establishing lines of descent to a progenitor. As a matter of  historical study,  it is moreover, “micro-history,  smaller even than regional history in scope in that it concentrates and establishes  hereditary and familial links on a specific family as it moves through small slices of a much broader history. The Dictionary of History 3rd edition (New York, Scribner’s, 2003) refers to the field of genealogy as an “auxiliary branch of history.”  Practitioners of genealogy called themselves genealogists.

History of  U.S. Genealogy:

 Although today many in the U.S. believe that genealogy got its start following the T.V. mini-series, Roots, based on the popular 1977 novel  by Alex Haley, this  is entirely untrue. While the mini-series sensation certainly spurred interest in amateur genealogy as a popular late 20th century  cultural phenomenon, genealogy, as a research field in the U.S. is much older, growing out of early interest in military fraternal organizations and records preservation.

Although genealogy as a pseudo-science and vocation dates back to classical Greece,  in the United States, genealogy received its earliest serious advocates with the creation of  hereditary societies such as The Society of the Cincinnati created in 1783, in New York by Henry Knox, an artillery officer who, along with other officers both American and French, had served  in the Continental Army. State chapters soon formed in all of the 13 colonies where membership was then – as now —  limited strictly to the hereditary descendent of  original members.  Needless to say, the perceived elitism of such a group was quickly criticized in the new republic as such fraternities appeared to foster a tendency to social status based on lineage and yoked the citizenry to a past it preferred to forget.[2]

Forging ahead with it new identity, fresh “historical” organizations formed in the early republican years and preferred, nevertheless, to preserve the young republic’s records for posterity thus giving birth to such efforts as the Massachusetts Historical Society in 1791, the New York Historical Society  in 1804, and  the American Antiquarian Society in 1812 – all of whose preservationist interests were national in scope and whose efforts continue today.  Although similar southern efforts were begun such as the Virginia Historical Society (1831)  they suffered from an apparent lack of interest in their formative years and were not as vibrant as their New England peers who considered preserving records from the founding of the republic of critical importance.[3]

Among the earliest advocates to see the connection between those records and how they bore on family relations and lineage was John Farmer, an early member  of the New Hampshire Historical Society (1823).[4] An antiquarian by vocation, entirely self-taught but with a lifelong passion for history, he published some of the earliest town histories such as, “Historical Sketch of  Billerica (Mass.) and  “An Historical Sketch of Amherst from the First Settlement of the Town.” (New Hampshire) [5]  Farmer’s publications were fomented in part by the fact that he   was seeing a pronounced uptick in an interest in the historical records and their correlation to genealogical connections  and wrote to fellow NHHS antiquarian, John Kelley, observing, “there is certainly a spirit of historical research and inquiry excited, which we have seen at no former period.”[6]  It was also during this period that early genealogists such as Farmer began to develop a methodology  as regarded  genealogical compilation as well as exercise what in modern terms would be called “peer-review,” where colleagues critically analyze a peer’s  manuscript for accuracy and originality. Farmer and his fellow antiquarians were certain this review process was a keystone element in good genealogy.[7]

Celebration of the U. S. centennial of the mid 1870s heralded the beginning of  greatly improved  professional genealogical research in the U.S. as links to the country’s revolutionary roots took on greater importance,  but those efforts also competed for legitimacy with  the first amateur genealogy craze of the 1880s and 1890s. Abundant hardbound  relics of this period still populate many library shelves and can be distinguished by their verbose Victorian titles and often hagiographic treatment of their subjects. In turn, many individuals turned to these numerous volumes to research their families, ignoring their many flaws and inherent biases or lack of source citations.  Many of the claims made, were never checked by subsequent readers against original records.

By the turn of the century, genealogy had reached a national popularity and organizations such as  the  National Genealogical Society (1903)  was formed in Washington, D.C. to address the rising tide of interest among the general population. However, as yet  there still existed  no universal standards for professional genealogical conduct, training, methodology, or  source citation. This began to change by the middle of  the twentieth century.  Donald Lines Jacobus is usually credited with  raising professional standards  by establishing the New Haven Genealogical Magazine in 1922. It was renamed The American Genealogist, by the early 1930s and ushered in the first U.S. peer-reviewed journal devoted to the scholarly practice of genealogy.

In the 1940s, the American Society of Genealogists was formed in New York City from three eminent members of  the American Historical Association,  partly to take up the challenge begun by Jacobus but also to  advocate and promote a scholarly approach to genealogy as well as to  reward those  in  the field of  professional genealogy. ASG membership then as now was limited to 50 lifetime “fellows” selected for their scholarly output and professional contributions to the field.

In the mid-1960s, ASG fellows were instrumental in founding  The Board for Certification of Genealogists which today is the only certifying body in the U.S. available to those wishing certification as a genealogist. Certifications are granted  based on qualifications such as education, practice,  as well  other criteria established by the BCG. Generally the applicant has 1 year from the start of his application to fulfill the criteria. In addition to certifying genealogists, the BCG has helped establish strict ethics and source citation paradigms particular to the needs of genealogists as well as proof standards for researchers in the field.  In addition, the BCG holds seminars and other educational opportunities for those seeking certification.

In the 1970s, with the broadcast the miniseries, Roots, Genealogy began to experience its second craze in popularity with enormous success and has since lead to a proliferation of commercial enterprises of every imaginable type  as well as membership opportunities to every imaginable genealogy-related society — military, hereditary, fraternal,  and otherwise —  ballooning its ever-growing popularity. In the 1980s,  The ASG began publication of it journal, The Genealogist, which has continued the lineage of peer-reviewed journals begun by Jacobus. Several other similar journals have since appeared as well.

Today, nearly every American library has a section set aside especially for genealogy; in many cities, specialty libraries have emerged catering to a seemingly unquenchable thirst for genealogy. With the rise of the use of personal computers in the 1980s, and the flowering on the Internet in the 1990s, the proliferation of digitized original records has become a mainstay of the field and are now easily accessible with the click of a mouse.

Yet, despite its growth in scholarship and popular culture, the relationship between historians and genealogists has not always been an easy one, although in recent years there are scholars, such as University of Texas’s Dr. Jacqueline Jones who advocate for a better relationship.[8] Despite this, there currently exists no such thing as a degree in genealogy, nor any state licensing, although there are highly credible seminars and learning opportunities as well as conferences available to those wanting to improve their skills. Meanwhile, its regulation and ethics rely entirely upon the professionalism and integrity of  its most professional practitioners.  It remains to be  seen what the future brings.

[1] Stephanie DuPont Golda, “A Look at the History of Forensic Anthropology: Tracing My Academic Genealogy,” Journal of Contemporary Anthropology, 1 no.1 (2010):35-43

2] François Weil, “John Farmer and the Making of American Genealogy” The New England Quarterly,  80 no.3 (2007):408–434

[3] Ibid. : 414

[4] “Antiquarian” was the 19th century name given  to amateurs with a passion for things historical, just as “Naturalist,” was  used to distinguish those with a passionate bent toward things biological.

[5] Jacob B. Moore, “Biographical notice of John Farmer, late corresponding secretary of the New Hampshire Historical Society” Boston, 1839

[6] François Weil,   415.

[7] Ibid  427.

[8] Jacqueline Jones,  “A Historian among Genealogists: Working on Who Do You Think You Are?” American Historical Association, Perspectives on History (blog),  January,  2013  http://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/january-2013/a-historian-among-genealogists